The House of the Devil

I finally got to watch Ti West’s The House of the Devil last week. And oh man, was it worth the wait!

The House of the Devil is set in the early 80s, and West’s dedication to the era is all-encompassing. The film’s cinematography, plot structure, wardrobe, dialogue and soundtrack are all deliciously retro, and West even went so far as to build an ad campaign that correlates with the film’s old-school spirit. This bad-ass trailer caught my attention months ago:

And the poster series for the film is perfectly pitched with nostalgia.

A total eclipse of your SENSES.

The trailer really tells you everything you need to know: Samantha is a broke college student and she takes on a babysitting gig in a creepy house. And some shit goes down. Eventually.

West refutes all modern horror conventions in creating a film that is almost entirely buildup with very little gruesome gratification. Despite the fact that West is responsible for the Cabin Fever sequel, he unflinchingly bucks the trend started in part by Eli Roth and whoever-the-hell made the first Saw film. If the universe is just, The House of the Devil will be the tight and twisty nail on the torture porn coffin. That shit is played out, and Ti West made a movie that is a gift to those of us who have yawned our way through a decade of glossy inanity on the scream scene.

The House of the Devil could easily fall prey to gimmickery and clichés if not for West’s sublime attention to detail and inspired casting. Jocelin Donahue plays Samantha, and she is dead-on perfect.

She’s not perfect in that she’s an astonishingly good actress—seriously, can you name me even one 80s fright flick that features a brilliant actress as the lead? No, Donahue falls flat in an authentic way, as counterintuitive as that may seem. And her doe-eyed, fresh-faced look is just right.

Greta Gerwin masterfully portrays the wild and imperturbable best friend, Megan. She’s fierce and kick-ass and rocks the shit out of that foxy Farrah ‘do.

The owners of the house, played by Mary Woronov and Tom Noonan, are ideally cast, as well. These two freak your shit out right off the bat, without actually doing anything.

West uses widescreen framing, long tracking shots and lengthy takes with proficiency, building breath-holding tension in the most innocuous of scenes while further adding to the period feel. And oh my god, the freeze frames. I love this man’s freeze frames. I want to marry those freeze frames.

But despite all of the visual tricks West employed (and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the actual sound of the film, crackly and potent, too quiet during the dialogue, too loud during the scares), The House of the Devil is more than the sum of its devices. The 80s contrivance works on its own as a novelty, but it also serves a purpose; it carries us back to the days of giddy-scared slumber parties and dollar movie theaters, of being authentically afraid of what was on the screen instead of just grossed out by it. I was forcibly reminded of my nights of waiting until my parents had gone to sleep to catch whatever scary movie I could on cable, eating peanut butter straight out of the jar and then sleeping on my older sister’s floor because I was too frightened to enter my dark and empty bedroom. The House of the Devil plays with your nerves, causing your breath to catch in your throat and live there for 95 minutes until it’s released in a shaky laugh as the credits roll. I can’t remember the last time I felt that way during a movie…but I’m pretty sure it was the 80s.

8 Responses to “The House of the Devil”

  1. You paint such an accurate portrait of every kid’s experience watching horror movies in the 80’s: “…it carries us back to the days of giddy-scared slumber parties and dollar movie theaters, of being authentically afraid of what was on the screen instead of just grossed out by it.” That sentence alone has sold me on this movie. (Gore alone doesn’t and has never done anything to my scare senses except ruin my appetite for the food I just ordered at the Drafthouse.) I also can’t remember the last time I felt that way during a movie, but I appreciate any opportunity to experience it again as an adult. So what I’m getting at is, thank you for the suggestion!

  2. This movie does such a good job of building suspense–it’s just so damn quiet at times. You know when a movies just seems to get it right? Everything that happens seems exactly as it should and nothing is ever too much or too little. That is this movie.

    I would have to say Megan the best friend is one of my favorite parts. That character is one of my favorites in a long time. Her attitude and presense help break up the tension in a very tense movie. No 80’s horror flick would be complete without plenty of those “why is she still going through with this when it seems so sketchy?” and “why are you doing that?” moments and Samantha definitely delivers them.

    Anyone who doesn’t see this movie will have something important missing from their lives.

  3. i’m so glad this movie lived up to yr expectations!!

    i probably won’t see it (given my weenie pants) but i WILL be eating peanut butter straight from the jar in the v. near future.

  4. Thanks, Kim! I’m certain you will LOVE it! Sarah, I can’t watch the Poltergeist movies without craving crunchy peanut butter on a metal spoon because I associate the two so heavily.

  5. I was going to see it in the theater on Monday, but time ran out!! I am soooooo excited to see this movie. Double trouble true on your walk down memory lane. My best friend and I went to the local gas station and rented horror movies because it was the only place in town that would rent to two 11 year old girls (who conveniently for the convenience store were also very, very fond of high fructose corn syrup). If I ever grow up, I want to be the grown up that sticks it to the Man by letting kids watch horror movies.


    With someone next to me so I could bury my face in their shoulder and rock myself back and forth, muttering, “it’s not real. it’s not really real.”

    Which, yeah, is why no one will see horror flicks with me.

  7. This was such a fun movie! I really liked the soundtrack and vibe of the movie as well, it gave it a nice classic feel. I also enjoyed the build-up and structure to this movie, where you see something weird that the main character has no clue about… poor best-friend..and the finale was exactly what I wanted! Everyone’s obsessed with the eclipse!
    Great review!

  8. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, J-L! I could watch it again and again.

    Thanks for commenting! xo

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